“How long have you known my son?” Thomas smiled.
“Are you two—?”
“We don’t know what we are.”
Secretly he’d hoped Emma would take the opportunity to clarify what, in fact, they were, but instead she shot him a quick look that asked how much longer they had to sit here and went back to smoking, her eyes drifting, anchorless, around the grand room.
The entrées reached the table, and they passed the next twenty minutes talking about the quality of the steaks and the béarnaise sauce and the new carpeting Cregger had recently installed.
During dessert, Thomas lit his own cigarette. “So what is it you do, dear?”
“I work at Papadikis Furniture.”
“Did my son pilfer a couch? Is that how you met?”
“Dad,” Joe said.
“I’m just wondering how you met,” his father said.
Emma lit a cigarette and looked out at the room. “This is a real swank place.”
“It’s just that I’m well aware how my son earns a living. I can only assume that if you’ve come into contact with him, it was either during a crime or in an establishment populated by rough characters.”
“Dad,” Joe said, “I was hoping we’d have a nice dinner.”
“I thought we just did. Miss Gould?”
Emma looked over at him.
“Have my questions this evening made you uncomfortable?”
Emma locked him in that cool gaze of hers, the one that could freeze a fresh coat of roofing tar. “I don’t know what you’re on about. And I don’t particularly care.”
Thomas leaned back in his chair and sipped his coffee. “I’m on about you being the type of lass who consorts with criminals, which may not be the best thing for your reputation. The fact that the criminal in question happens to be my son isn’t the issue. It’s that my son, criminal or no, is still my son and I have paternal feelings for him, feelings that cause me to question the wisdom of his consorting with the type of woman who knowingly consorts with criminals.” Thomas placed his coffee cup back on the saucer and smiled at her. “Did you follow all that?”
Joe stood. “Okay, we’re going.”
But Emma didn’t move. She dropped her chin to the heel of her hand and considered Thomas for some time, the cigarette smoldering next to her ear. “My uncle mentioned a copper he has on his payroll, name of Coughlin. That you?” She gave him a tight smile to match his own and took a drag off her cigarette.
“This uncle would be your Uncle Robert, the one everyone calls Bobo?”
She flicked her eyelids in the affirmative.
“The police officer to whom you refer is named Elmore Conklin, Miss Gould. He’s stationed in Charlestown and is known to collect shakedown payments from illegal establishments like Bobo’s. I rarely get over to Charlestown, myself. But as deputy superintendent, I’d be happy to take a more focused interest in your uncle’s establishment.” Thomas stubbed out his cigarette. “Would that please you, dear?”
Emma held out her hand to Joe. “I need to powder.”
Joe gave her tip money for the ladies’-room attendant and they watched her cross the restaurant. Joe wondered if she’d return to the table or grab her coat and just keep walking.
His father removed his pocket watch from his vest and flicked it open. Snapped it closed just as quickly and returned it to its pocket. The watch was the old man’s most prized possession, an eighteen-karat Patek Philippe given to him over two decades ago by a grateful bank president.
Joe asked him, “Was any of that necessary?”
“I didn’t start the fight, Joseph, so don’t criticize how I finished it.” His father sat back in his chair and crossed one leg over the other. Some men wore their power as if it were a coat they couldn’t get to fit or to stop itching. Thomas Coughlin wore his like it had been tailored for him in London. He surveyed the room and nodded at a few people he knew before looking back at his son. “If I thought you were just making your way in the world on an unconventional path, do you think I’d take issue with it?”
“Yes,” Joe said, “I do.”
His father gave that a soft smile and a softer shrug. “I’ve been a police officer for thirty-seven years and I’ve learned one thing above all else.”
“That crime never pays,” Joe said, “unless you do it at an institutional level.”
Another soft smile and a small tip of the head. “No, Joseph. No. What I’ve learned is that violence procreates. And the children your violence produces will return to you as savage, mindless things. You won’t recognize them as yours, but they’ll recognize you. They’ll mark you as deserving of their punishment.”
Joe had heard variations of this speech over the years. What his father failed to recognize—besides the fact that he was repeating himself—was that general theories need not apply to particular people. Not if the people—or person—in question was determined enough to make his own rules and smart enough to get everyone else to play by them.
Joe was only twenty, but he already knew he was that type of person.
But to humor the old man, if for no other reason, he asked, “And what exactly are these violent offspring punishing me for again?”
“The carelessness of their reproduction.” His father leaned forward, elbows on the table, palms pressed together. “Joseph.”
“Joseph, violence breeds violence. It’s an absolute.” He unclasped his hands and looked at his son. “What you put out into the world will always come back for you.”
“Yeah, Dad, I read my catechism.”
His father tipped his head in recognition as Emma came out of the powder room and crossed to the coat-check room. His eyes tracking her, he said to Joe, “But it never comes back in a way you can predict.”
“I’m sure it doesn’t.”
“You’re not sure of anything except your own certainty. Confidence you haven’t earned always has the brightest glow.” Thomas watched Emma hand her ticket to the coat-check girl. “She’s quite easy on the eyes.”
Joe said nothing.
“Outside of that, though,” his father said, “I fail to grasp what you see in her.”